When it comes to being persuasive, it’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it. Psychologists find that a weak language style is less convincing than a more commanding speech pattern.

The concepts of powerful and powerless speech were introduced by James Bradac and Anthony Mulac, social psychologists at the University of California. “Powerless” language falls into four categories:

  • hedges (using sort of, kind of)
  • hesitations (“I … uh … think so”)
  • disclaimers (I’m no expert, but …)
  • tag questions (“It’s a good idea, isn’t it?”).  A “tag question” is a statement with a question hooked on the end, conveying the sense that the communicator does not assume the reader or listener will believe it.

 In one experiment, Bradac and Mulac told participants that “Susan” wanted to present herself in a job interview as authoritative, confident, intelligent, and aggressive. Then participants read a transcript of her responses to questions during the interview, in which she used all of the qualifying devices listed above. Participants gave her a low rating, because she sounded tentative and uncertain about her position.

 People exhibiting a more powerful language style tended to be fluent, direct, and concise, and participants who evaluated them viewed them as being more confident and more in command of their thoughts. They were judged more favorably regarding their credibility, competence, intelligence, and social power.

The speaking style not only affects an audience’s perception of the speaker/writer as an individual; it also influences attitude’s toward the communicator’s idea or recommendation “because the speaker is perceived as powerless or not credible,” said psychologist John Sparks, of the University of Dayton.

One way to avoid a weak style is to rehearse, sometimes over and over, before going into a meeting or doing a presentation. You will make a stronger impression and you will hold attention.